You know what’s fun? Comparing one team against another to see which one you think is better. You know what’s ALMOST as fun? Actually watching those teams play against one another to determine who is ACTUALLY better.
Wait, reverse that.
This is the NFL offseason. The offseason is, by definition, NOT the season. The offseason is long and painful and boring. It’s why we have other sports at other times of the year to fill the void. In the NFL offseason, we have nothing else better to do except look at the teams on paper, compare them to one another, and talk ourselves into believing that OUR team – on paper – is good enough to win the Super Bowl. Gotta do something to pass the time, right?
This year, there appears to be two teams who are head & shoulders above the rest: San Francisco and Seattle. There will be countless articles and blog posts written on the subject of: Which Team Is Better? A standard practice in trying to figure out which team is better is to break them down, position-by-position. Whichever team has more victories in the position-by-position battles will BE the better team (again, on paper).
Except, you can’t really do that. Because not all positions are created equal. If one team has the better quarterback, and the other team has the better punter, you’re not going to say that those teams are thus far tied at 1 to 1 in the position battle breakdown. That’s insane! You’ve got to weight the positions in order of importance. You win a higher percentage of the pie, you’re the better team.
There are ten areas of a football team. If you split them up into wedges of a pie, they would break down thusly:
- Quarterback – 25%
- Offensive Line – 15%
- Pass Rush – 12%
- Secondary – 12%
- Receivers – 10%
- Special Teams – 8%
- Running Backs – 7%
- Rush Defense – 7%
- Coaching – 4%
It should be obvious why a quarterback is so important, but I’ll say it again anyway. A good quarterback can make mediocre receivers better. A good quarterback will stop defenses from loading up in the box, meaning the running game should be better. A good quarterback can make up for a weak offensive line by making quick (and smart) decisions. A good quarterback will also make the lives of your special teams easier by scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goal tries (and by shifting field position to make punt coverage easier). Let us not forget, a good quarterback, when successful, will make the defense’s lives easier by scoring a lot of points and letting his defense play with a lead. It’s always better to play with a lead. Finally, a good quarterback makes the coaching staff look like geniuses because a good quarterback usually leads the team to winning more games.
I hate to break it down all Ron Fairly on you, but AH-DUH!
I’ve got offensive line in second position because a good offensive line will usually make a mediocre quarterback look good (see Mark Sanchez’s first two seasons). A bad offensive line will often render a #1 overall drafted quarterback into a pile of mush (see Alex Smith’s first however-many seasons before the 49ers finally bolstered their O-Line).
I have pass rush and secondary on equal footing because if you have one or the other, you can usually get by. If you’ve got both, then your defense is amazing and probably unstoppable.
I’ve got receivers ahead of running backs because they’re more important (and more in numbers). You’ll notice I don’t have tight ends on this thing and that’s for a reason. Either they block and they’re part of the offensive line, or they go out in a pattern and become receivers. There’s no sense in making tight end its own category because there isn’t anything about a tight end that is exclusively “tight end”. They’re either blockers or receivers, so think of them as members of both groups. Anyway, this is a passing league. Quarterbacks are breaking records left and right. Receivers are a bigger part of that than running backs. A running game can take pressure off of a quarterback, but ultimately, for the most part, if you’re putting up huge rushing numbers, it’s because you’re winning and racking up tons of yards late in games. There are obviously exceptions, but exceptions are just that. They’re not the rule.
I had a hard time trying to figure out what Special Teams was worth, originally having them dead last. But, the more I think about it, the more you can’t deny that Special Teams are a major part of football. They probably SHOULDN’T be, but they are. I still feel that teams punt way more than they need to, and settle for field goals way more than they should probably go for the touchdown. In an ideal world, Special Teams would be worth somewhere around 1-2%, but as it stands, you’ve got to put them at 8%. Too much can go wrong. Games are won and lost all the times based on Special Teams breakdowns. Huge returns in the closing seconds of the 4th quarter; a return man bringing back multiple kicks/punts to the house; a blocked field goal being returned for a touchdown; a bungled punt snap resulting in a sack and/or safety. These things determine ballgames and, if you have enough of them, they can also determine playoff seeding.
Running backs and rush defense are also on equal footing because they can easily cancel each other out. A great running game is great and all, but it doesn’t take you very far in today’s NFL. See last year’s Vikings team. See, also, Tim Tebow’s Broncos team. With the devaluation of the rush game, there’s also a devaluation in rush defense. Teams are looking more towards pass rush and stopping opposing quarterbacks from shredding them for 400 yards per game. You might not like to see it, but teams win games all the time while being dominated in Time of Possession (see: any Peyton Manning team ever).
Linebackers can be fun and exciting to watch, but they’re essentially the defense’s version of tight ends. Either they go towards the line, plugging gaps and making tackes in the run game, or they go out into coverage and try to prevent receivers from catching footballs (or, you know, they try to sack the quarterback). There’s no sense in singling out linebackers because they essentially do everything I’ve already listed. Besides, I would argue just as the NFL is devaluing the running game, it’s also devaluing linebackers. This isn’t the 1970s or 80s. Teams are getting by with late-round (or undrafted) linebackers. The market for free agent linebackers has to be at an all time low (respectively, accounting for inflation and all that). Nowadays, teams will spend high draft picks on linebackers with a specialty in the pass rush. If you don’t have the potential for double-digit sacks, then the odds are you won’t be picked in the first round.
Last, but not least, we have coaches. If there’s parity in any aspect of the NFL, it’s probably in coaching. Now, if I were to throw in General Managers (or just the aspect of scouting, drafting, and signing free agents), then these numbers would be skewed WAY in favor of GMs. But, I’m not counting them, because once the two teams are on the field, GMs no longer hold any influence. Their influence has already spoken.
Coaches decide who the best players are and make them their starters. Anyone who is football-smart can tell who is the best player at all the positions! Coaches decide which plays to run; some are more pass-heavy than others, but ultimately it’s up to the players as to whether the plays they run are good enough. I’m putting the onus on players, because it’s a fact of the game that great players make coaches look like geniuses while poor players get coaches fired. A coach can essentially be the same guy from one job to the next, but if the players perform at one job and don’t perform at another, did he immediately get “worse” as a coach? Or, did the GM not provide him with the talent required to succeed?
Coaches aren’t COMPLETELY inconsequential, though. Someone has to be in charge of calling time outs. Someone has to get all hormonal when making the decision to go for it on 4th and 1 at mid-field. In most close games, it often comes down to a curious coaching decision that we choose to dissect ad nauseum all week (even though, in all honesty, that one decision would’ve been rendered moot if the players had executed better earlier in the game).
Anyway, that’s my rationale for how I break down teams. But, it’s not as simple as it seems. For instance, if I went with Seattle vs. San Francisco, it would look something like this:
- Quarterbacks (25%) – Seattle
- Offensive Line (15%) – San Francisco
- Pass Rush (12%) – San Francisco
- Secondary (12%) – Seattle
- Receivers (10%) – Seattle
- Special Teams (8%) – Seattle
- Running Backs (7%) – Seattle
- Rush Defense (7%) – San Francisco
- Coaching (4%) – San Francisco
If I went and just added up the numbers, the end result would be Seattle 62%, San Francisco 38%. That’s a drubbing! That’s like saying Seattle would win 62% of the time and San Francisco would win only 38% of the time. These teams aren’t that far apart!
Look at it another way. If the quarterback position is worth 25%, then by giving Seattle the advantage (however slim I feel that advantage may be), essentially I’m saying that Russell Wilson = 25% and Colin Kaepernick = 0%. Now, we know that’s not true. So, you’ve got to break down these numbers even further. There’s going to be SOME percentage for both teams. Adjusting for this reality, the breakdown looks a little something like this:
- Quarterbacks (25%): Seattle 13%, San Francisco 12%
- Offensive Line (15%): San Francisco 9%, Seattle 6%
- Pass Rush (12%): San Francisco 7%, Seattle 5%
- Secondary (12%): Seattle 8%, San Francisco 4%
- Receivers (10%): Seattle 6%, San Francisco 4%
- Special Teams (8%): Seattle 5%, San Francisco 3%
- Running Backs (7%): Seattle 4%, San Francisco 3%
- Rush Defense (7%): San Francisco 4%, Seattle 3%
- Coaching (4%): San Francisco 3%, Seattle 1%
You’ll notice right off the bat that I don’t believe in ties. One team is better than the other at each one of these aspects of the game, so quit riding the fence! The next thing you’ll notice is how close these two teams are in talent. Seattle 51%, San Francisco 49%. That feels about right. On offense, it’s Seattle 29%, San Francisco 28%; on defense, it’s Seattle 16%, San Francisco 15%. Seattle gets a slight edge in special teams, San Francisco gets a slight edge in coaching. If these two teams played 100 times, I would readily believe that Seattle would win 51 of them and lose 49 of them. That makes a lot more sense to me than 62 and 38.
And, for the record, I gave each team a number for every category before I added them up; I didn’t come up with a 51/49 split and then mess around with the figures to make my conclusion work. That’s just the way it came out (believe it or not, it’s up to you).
My rationale looks like this:
At quarterback, you’re looking at nearly a dead-heat. There isn’t one thing that Kaepernick does that Wilson can’t do and vice versa. I gave the nod to Wilson because I feel like I can trust him more to do the right thing and make the right decision. Believe me, I like both of these guys. Wilson is my favorite team’s franchise quarterback. Kaepernick is my fantasy team’s franchise quarterback (and perennial keeper as long as he stays healthy). I’m not a hater by any means; in fact, I HAVE to like Kaepernick, or risk another last place finish in the league of which I’m the commissioner. On a purely physical, athletic level, I’d probably give the slight edge to Kaepernick. But, this is just as much a mental game, so the nod goes to Wilson.
Until Seattle proves otherwise, they have the inferior offensive line. That’s just a fact, two Pro Bowlers or not. This could change in a hurry if the guard situation is settled, but as long as it’s up in the air, this is a hefty 3-point advantage for the 49ers.
Before the Seahawks went out and brought in guys like Avril and Bennett, the discrepancy between these two teams’ pass rushes would’ve been vastly in favor of the 49ers. Seattle closed the gap, but not quite enough to take the lead.
The biggest difference in talent resides in the secondary, with Seattle having a 4-point swing. I wanted to go bigger, but couldn’t justify it in this case. San Francisco isn’t a 3% secondary, no matter how much I like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
Seattle is deeper and arguably more talented at receiver. Sidney Rice is better than Crabtree. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are both young, hungry, and looking for long-term deals; Boldin is on his last legs and didn’t really show up to play until the playoffs last season. Percy Harvin is the real dynamo in this equation; San Francisco doesn’t have anyone like him. San Francisco’s edge in pass-catching tight ends (with Vernon Davis a clear winner over Zach Miller) keeps this category as close as it is. They just better hope Kam Chancellor doesn’t knock his fucking block off again.
As for special teams, I’ll take Jon ‘MVP’ Ryan all day every day. San Francisco’s doubts at kicker trump Seattle’s doubts at kicker. The combo of Harvin and Tate in the return game leaves me absolutely salivating over whatever the 49ers are going to trot out there.
Yes, Frank Gore is aging, but he’s still got the wheels to be effective. Lynch is better, but not THAT much better. We’ll see how things shake out behind those two stalwarts. If the rookies pan out for Seattle, we might be shifting these numbers even further in our direction.
Rush defense goes to the Niners because, quite honestly, I didn’t like what I saw from Seattle down the stretch last year. It COULD be better. I’d like to see a big step forward from our primary linebackers (Wright & Wagner) before I start thinking about flipping this category in Seattle’s direction.
As much as it pains me to say it, I have to say that San Francisco has the edge in the coaching battle. Now, if we were talking coach and GM combo, then the edge is Seattle’s all the way, but again we’re not. Harbaugh – as douchey as he is – took an underperforming team and immediately turned it into a winner. Carroll has worked with Schneider to build one of the best teams in all of football, and in what has to be record time. But, is Carroll and Co. really coaching up these guys? Or, is the talent so good that a beagle could lead this team to 11-12 wins?
I feel like Harbaugh goes into every game with a better plan and the 49ers are better able to make adjustments within that game. It seems to me Carroll has yet to really cement an identity. Is he conservative? He would seem to be, with his run-first philosophy. Then again, this team also likes the play-action and grabbing huge chunks of yardage through the air. Is he aggressive? A press defense with blitzers coming from every conceivable angle would indicate that’s so. But, then again, this team also plays a lot of zone and likes to go heavy against the run in their base defense. Ultimately, he’s unpredictable, which is attributable to the way he will go for it on 4th down at one point, but not at another, seemingly with no rhyme or reason for either. It can make for exciting football, but it can also be reckless. At least Carroll isn’t a raging toolbag of a honky. I might trust Harbaugh more on the sidelines, but I’ll take Carroll over him any day.